Sunday, December 30, 2007

A year-end analysis of high seas piracy

As 2007 draws to a close, it’s inevitable that I should look back on the passing year and ponder what I’ve seen, heard and deduced about modern-day piracy on the high seas. Keep in mind that I am not a security analyst, academic scholar or naval statistician; I am a journalist who has been immersed in this issue for several years, seeking firsthand accounts of piracy from various places where it is problematic and talking with those who have dealt with it in other areas I have yet to visit. Though by no means an expert on the situation, I am perhaps somewhat better informed than others about things. Traveling through four continents in the last year and speaking with hundreds of people has given me a perspective, but it can only be called my own.

In looking at 2007, my perspective is that it was not the worst year in recent memory for worldwide pirate attacks. But it was bad. After a fairly quiet first six months, an overall trend is that piracy has returned to the waters of “traditional” hotspots – the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, Sri Lanka and the Strait of Malacca. There are other places where maritime crime festers, but not on the same scale as seen in these areas.

Without a doubt, the waters off Somalia remain the worst place for piracy this year. Since September, the number of vessels attacked off its coast have made it a very scary place for any mariner to sail. The hijackings and ransomings of ships have, again, forced the United Nations to address the issue. France has made a firm commitment to safeguard vessels carrying UN aid to Somalia, while the United States and coalition forces – including Canada – are promising their naval ships will be more active in combating the threat of piracy. One can only hope that these actions continue in 2008.

The most violent attacks on individuals continue to occur in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, especially off Nigeria. While the Somali gangs concern themselves with hijacking vessels and crews for ransom, without harming crews too much, the pirates in the Gulf seem much more inclined to violence. Though sometimes cloaked in purported political aims – such as the plight of poor Nigerians in the delta region who have yet to see any concrete returns from all the oil extracted in the region – this remains an area prone to banditry and robbery for purely selfish ends. Watch for an increased American presence in the region in 2008.

The Strait of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, has ceased to be a centre major of attacks on commercial vessels (thanks to increased naval patrols by the forces of the littoral countries). But the attacks on Malaysian fishermen by marauders throughout the past year is a troubling example of low-level conflict inflicted on unarmed civilians that has yet to be fully addressed. Overlooked and forgotten, it could develop into a dangerous situation by those who live astride one of the world’s busiest waterways. Expect something dramatic to occur here in the new year.

When it comes to seaborne terrorism, Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers continue to make the northern waters off that beautiful island a battleground. This past week saw Sri Lankan government forces engaging the Tigers in firefights that left dozens dead. You likely never heard about it in the midst of news coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, but Sri Lanka continues to be the site of the worst terrorist activity ongoing on the high seas. This will fester and remain of little concern to the rest of the world, unless the Tigers finally mount some sort of outside campaign against foreign targets, such as Indian shipping. China is already increasing its naval presence in the Bay of Bengal. Keep an eye on that.

Beyond these regions, I’d be cautious as a mariner in the southern Caribbean Sea. The northern coasts of Venezuela and Guyana are dodgy, to say the least, so be careful.

Finally, I’d like to offer my personal vote on the one individual who has done the most to safeguard mariners facing the threat of pirate attacks. He is an energetic and selfless man living in Kenya named Andrew Mwangura who works, tirelessly, with the Seafarers Assistance Programme in East Africa. I met Andrew in the port of Mombasa earlier this year and remain in awe of his work. Anyone who can help him – he works on a purely voluntary basis – should seek him out. He deserves our aid and respect for trying to help those working at sea who face dangers undeserved.

Happy New Year to one and all in the maritime community.

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